Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!:
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is publicly accusing the owner of the National Enquirer of “extortion and blackmail,” weeks after the paper revealed details about his extramarital affair. Bezos had recently hired a private investigator to determine how the tabloid newspaper obtained private text messages between him and his lover, and whether the paper’s actions were politically motivated. The National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, Inc., responded to Bezos’s investigation by threatening to publish revealing photos of Bezos if he did not agree to publicly state that the Enquirer’s coverage was not politically motivated or influenced by political forces. We speak with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald about the dispute and Amazon’s role in building the surveillance state.
Americans love to venerate billionaires, and so it’s not a surprise that one of the first instincts was to herald Jeff Bezos as some sort of grand hero of a free press and open transparency. I do think one of the benefits of what he did could be important, and it’s perhaps something that it takes a billionaire to do, which is to kind of remove the stigma that surrounds adult consensual sex in the United States. Whenever there’s a sex scandal, there is this sort of adolescent, prurient interest on the part of the media. People love to sit in judgment of other people. And he essentially said, “Look, I prefer that you not publish naked photos of me and my mistress, but if that’s what you’re going to do, I’m not going to be bullied and intimidated by you. I’m not going to be ashamed.” And to the extent that in the future we can be a little bit more mature about the fact that adults do in fact have sexual relations with other adults and that it’s none of our business when they do, as long as it’s consensual and with other adults, I think this could be a positive aspect to the story.
Having said that, it is, I think, something that seems to be true that Jeff Bezos was trying to imply, and a lot of media outlets were using innuendo to support, the notion that the National Enquirer was able to obtain these text messages between him and his mistress as a result of abuse by the surveillance state, meaning that Donald Trump views Jeff Bezos as a political enemy because Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post, that has become very antagonistic to Donald Trump during the Trump presidency, and that either the powers of the NSA or the FBI were abused in order to intercept these messages and then give them to the National Enquirer to harm Jeff Bezos. And as it turns out, that speculation seems to be unfounded. As you said, The Daily Beast and other outlets in the U.K. are reporting that the source of this material was not the NSA or the FBI, but was the brother of Jeff Bezos’s mistress, who, although he’s politically connected to right-wing operatives, nonetheless is a private individual and seemingly obtained this material not by abusing surveillance state authorities, but instead by using his relationship with his sister to do it.
The one last point I’ll make just on this initial question is that, obviously, if it were the case that the powers of the NSA or the FBI or the CIA or the surveillance state had been abused against a political enemy to collect embarrassing information about Jeff Bezos, that would be a really serious scandal that we should all be extremely indignant and concerned about. The problem I have with that is that as part of the Snowden reporting in 2014, we were able to report, with The Huffington Post, that one of the programs of the NSA is to do exactly this, is to collect the browsing histories and sex chats and porn site visits of people, typically Muslims that the NSA regards as, quote, “radicalizers”—not terrorists, not people plotting terrorist plots, just people who the NSA or the U.S. government believes disseminates radical messages—and collects their porn site visits and their sex chats in order to leak them, ruin their reputation, destroy their ability to speak out. This is an actual NSA program. And I think we ought to care about that not just when it’s used against white billionaires like Jeff Bezos, but also when it’s used to target Muslims that the NSA regards as radical, which is an actual thing the NSA is doing, that we revealed in 2014, thanks to the Snowden documents.
…ordinarily, we would sympathize with the person who was being threatened with exposure of their private life if they didn’t stop making claims about a powerful media outlet, and yet, in this case, the person who is the, quote-unquote, “victim” is not just the world’s richest person, who has gotten extremely rich by virtue of exploiting labor in ways that are wholly horrific and on all different aspects, but also somebody who’s used these tactics himself in the past, and then, most significantly of all, as you referred to earlier, is somebody whose company has become one of the most valuable in the world by virtue of working hand in hand with the U.S. government and with police departments throughout the West in constructing exactly the kind of sprawling, invasive surveillance state that he believes himself now to be a victim of.
So, obviously, as a result of the Snowden reporting, a lot of attention was devoted to the sprawling, invasive surveillance activities of government agencies, like the NSA in the U.S. and the GCHQ in the U.K. and their partners in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And less attention has been paid, or at least was paid, as part of that story, to the private corporations, the Silicon Valley giants, who play a crucial role in partnering with these government agencies to construct that surveillance state.
And some attention has been devoted in recent years to the role both Google and especially Facebook are playing in creating a ubiquitous surveillance state, but much less so for Amazon, which has done a really good job of branding itself in this very kind of unthreatening and benign way as a deliverer of books and other merchandise, when in fact one of the central components of Amazon’s business, that has made it one of the most valuable companies in the world, are extremely lucrative contracts with the CIA, with the Pentagon, with the Air Force, with police departments all over the Western world, not just in the U.S., to use technology to enhance the ability of governments and police forces to engage in surveillance.
They’ve created a facial recognition software that they call Rekognition—with a K—that can scan millions or thousands of faces in crowds and identify them, to enable police to find people they’re looking for.
They’ve developed apps that enable police departments to allow citizens to report suspicious people, so that the information is stored not with the police, but with Amazon cloud services.
There’s a product called Ring, that has been wildly successful, that is marketed as a home security system, that surveils the perimeter of your house and records everybody coming in and out of your house. And The Intercept, last month, has reported that they’ve been incredibly reckless with allowing Ukrainians and other government agencies to have access to this vast amount of data, that actually ends up spying on your own home.
They have a $500 million contract with the CIA to provide cloud services. They have a $600 million contract with the Air Force to build spying satellites. And they’re now vying for and are the leader—the favorites to win a $10 billion contract with the Pentagon to provide cloud storage services to put all of the data that the Pentagon stores into Amazon technology. So they have become a central cog in the military-industrial complex, as well as the invasive surveillance state that Jeff Bezos spent a week trying to imply—falsely, it turns out—was misused in order to invade his privacy.
…The Intercept has actually been doing ongoing coverage, not necessarily from me, but from our team of technology reporters, about all of these innovations that Amazon is boasting, that are incredibly privacy-invasive, one of which you just mentioned, that allows the technology, through Skype, through chats, through other writing analysis, to determine what your accent is. So, if you’re not a native speaker of English, it will be able to identify the original language that you learned as your first language, and therefore determine where you’re from—a tool that the CIA and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, including the NSA, want to get their hands on in order to start looking for people of specific national origin or where they came from. ICE is particularly interested in that technology.
And again, the ACLU issued a really vehement warning about this particular product, saying that it will almost certainly target marginalized groups, vulnerable groups, not just people who are here on an undocumented basis, but people that the government are searching for based strictly on national identity, so that you can’t even type on your computer or speak on the telephone without Amazon enabling the government to analyze where you’re from.
…Silicon Valley is producing companies, and the billionaires who control them, whose wealth and power are unprecedented. Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and the people who control Google have more power than almost every nation-state, if not more power than all of them. And increasingly, they’re integrating into these nation-states and performing the core functions, the most threatening and dangerous functions of them, with almost no transparency. And this is the frightening thing. So, if we have, for example, NASA or the Air Force, we at least have congressional oversight. We nominally have laws, like FOIA, that enable us to find out what they’re doing. With Amazon and with Google and Facebook’s development of artificial intelligence, it’s almost entirely opaque.
And so, you have these people of unlimited wealth, virtually, but also sitting on huge amounts of our personal data, who now, increasingly, are buying media outlets—Jeff Bezos is the owner of The Washington Post—so they have media power, as well, consolidating all of that into the military-industrial complex. And the fact that Jeff Bezos just openly tweets how happy he is to receive a $500 million contract in service of the U.S. Air Force shows how much this partnership is growing and how kind of open they are about it, despite how little we know about it and how little time we spend talking about its implications.